Famous Japanese People: Soichiro Honda 本田宗一郎
Japan's second biggest domestic automobile manufacturer, Honda, and the largest engine-maker in the world, was founded in September, 1948, just three years after the end of the Second World War. Its founder was the 42-year-old Soichiro Honda, an ardent aficionado of the automobile from a very young age, who quit his formal education after elementary school.
Honda was the son of a blacksmith who ran a bicycle repair shop, and, his mother, a weaver. From his earliest years he showed a fascination with all things mechanical, particularly forms of transport, especially the airplane.
Honda started working at an automobile shop in Tokyo from age 16, working on a variety of imported cars, from Lincolns to Daimlers to Mercedes. He took the opportunity to build his own racing car from an old aircraft engine and parts he made himself. He even raced it, but his racing aspirations were cut short by a life threatening crash in 1936.
Honda established his own company at age 31, in 1937, making piston rings for Toyota. Lack of knowledge saw him enroll in a technical high school, from which he pointedly refused to formally graduate, having already obtained the skills he needed. During the war, the factory produced metal replacements for the wooden airplane propellers in use until then. He sold what was left of his factory, after war- and earthquake- damage, to Toyota immediately after the war.
His Honda Technical Research Institute, founded 1946, produced motorized bicycles, using small, war-surplus engines. Renamed Honda Motors in 1948, it went on to produce motorcycles. Takeo Fujisawa, a trusted friend, was taken on as CEO, leaving Soichiro Honda free to focus on the engineering side of things.
By 1952, Honda's F-type motorcycle accounted for 70% of Japan's motorcycle sales. Honda's primary marketing focus, however, was always on the export market, which he believed granted the key to domestic domination, and Honda Motors was established in the United States in 1959, providing a cheaper, more accessible, alternative to the British and American brands. Success for Honda motorbikes in international races in the early 1960's provided the export drive with a massive boost.
Honda produced its first car in 1967.
Soichiro Honda maintained an active on-the-floor presence in the company throughout, and retired at 67 to make way for new blood. He refused to become chairman of the company, retaining only the title supreme adviser.
Honda received the Order of the Sacred Treasure from the Emperor of Japan, as well as the Dud Perkins Award from the American Motorcyclist Association, and admission to the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1989.
Throughout his life Soichiro Honda was a larger than life, somewhat maverick, character who dressed boldly and flashily. To the end of his days, Honda was a keen pilot (as was his wife, Sachi), skiier, hang-glider, and balloonist. Soichiro Honda died in 1991 at age 84.